Thursday, October 27, 2011

That Journey That Almost Wasn't

Flying is often said to be more about the journey than the destination. I’ve found this to be true, not only in general aviation, but also in my position as a first officer for a major airline. After a recent layover in Paris however, the journey to Washington, DC almost never began.

After battling Paris traffic for an hour, we arrived at the Charles De Gaulle airport approximately one hour before our scheduled departure time of 5:00 PM. After clearing customs and security, we walked on board the Boeing 757 to find the concierge waiting with our paperwork. He told us our original flight plan had us stopping in Gander, Newfoundland for fuel, but dispatch had been able to find a way around that, and our new flight plan had us filed to the Dulles airport non-stop. Because of that however, every pound of fuel would be critical in preventing an unscheduled pit stop.

As I prepared the cockpit, the relief pilot did the preflight walk-around, while the captain was in the business first cabin, talking with a mechanic about various write-ups and to confirm the ETOPS pre-departure check had been accomplished. ETOPS is an acronym for “extended twin-engine operations,” but we also joke that it stands for “engines turn or people swim.” Meanwhile, the flight attendants were busy preparing the cabin for service and preflighting all of their own emergency equipment. Once they finished, the concierge began the boarding process.

While the passengers found their seats, the captain, relief pilot and myself began briefing our departure. We noted that fuel was going to be critical on this flight but also saw that we were over-fueled by 200 pounds of Jet-A. The boarding process invariably heats up the cabin, and since we had an extra 200 pounds of fuel to play with, we started the auxiliary power unit to establish a stronger source of air conditioning than the ground air could provide. Of course, that also started the fuel burn countdown to the minimum fuel quantity we could legally take-off with; 75,700 pounds. Around the same time, the mechanic came back to the airplane to reset a nuisance status message. While he was in the cockpit, he asked if he could disconnect the ground power and air conditioning. Since we had started the APU, we couldn’t think of any reason not to.

Up until this point, everything had the appearance of the beginnings to a normal flight. However, after the mechanic left, the radio crackled with a French accent. It was operations calling to inform us that the ground crew had just gone on strike and they would hopefully be done striking at 6:00 PM. I turned to the captain and asked, “Did he just say the ground crew is on strike?” Nodding his head, the captain said, “That’s what I heard.” Once we processed the news, I called operations back and asked if they thought we would be pushing back at 6:00 PM. It wasn’t that simple. There were still hundreds of bags to be loaded, so he arranged a wheels-up (aka slot) time with the tower of 6:46 PM, with the hopes that the ground crew would be done with their strike at 6:00 PM, at which point they’d load the bags, and we’d be airborne by our wheels-up time. Then he told us he might be able to get some management personnel from the company who handles our ramp operation (who aren’t in the ground crew’s union) to load bags. They, of course, were busy with other airplanes so it may be a while. Wonderful. So, the best case scenario is, we would be leaving over an hour and half late.

With a critical fuel situation and an unknown delay, we thought it would be a good idea to reconnect the ground power and air conditioning so we could shut down the APU and conserve some of our fuel. Fortunately, the mechanic who had been working with us, worked for a partner airline and not the striking ground company. The mechanic came into the cockpit and we asked if he’d be kind enough to reconnect the ground power and air. The good news just kept coming when he told us, “I’ll do my best but the ground power requires a key to start and the ground crew took the key with them.” Great.

If getting ground power back wasn’t an option, there was no way we were going to be able to sit at the gate for two hours, with the APU burning into our precious fuel supply. We would need a fuel truck back at the airplane. Again, we were fortunate that the fueling company was separate from the ground company and were able to get more fuel without any issues. Because of the known delay, we asked them to give a little more than what was on the release. The fueler obliged and gave us 400 pounds more than we needed. The APU burns about 200 pounds of fuel per hour, so that would get us by for the next couple hours.

As the natives were beginning to get restless in the back, our first glimpse of hope showed up; the ground crew management we had been told about. Around 5:30 PM, three people dressed in shirts and ties began loading bags onto the airplane. The master caution light illuminated with the opening of the aft cargo door. Finally! Progress! After about ten minutes, the blue “ground call” light on the overhead panel illuminated. The captain picked up his microphone and answered the call, “Hello?” In a thick French accent, the ground manager said through the headset outside, “Captain, we have loaded the aft cargo compartment and we are ready to load the forward cargo, but the forward cargo door is stuck closed. Can you call maintenance?” This was turning into a comedy of errors. How could so many things go wrong before we even leave the gate? Fortunately, the mechanic, who was quickly becoming our new best friend, was already onboard repairing a malfunctioning oven in the aft galley. We told him of the problem outside, and he rushed outside to fix the broken cargo door. Once he finished working on the cargo door, he came back to inform us there were only a few more bags to be loaded. We asked if he knew who would push us back. He said he would do it for us and he would be outside ready to go whenever we were.

The ground crew management finished loading the bags, and the concierge came up to the cockpit to tell us that they were ready for push-back, however he can’t drive the jetway, so we needed one of the ground crew managers to operate the jetway. Finally, at 6:00 PM, we called for our push-back clearance and were told by the ground controller that we had a slot time of 6:46 PM and should call back in fifteen minutes. We, of course, already knew about the slot time, but we thought getting off the gate and away from all the problems would be a better idea.

Seven minutes later, another problem arose when a flight attendant came into the cockpit to tell us the coffee maker in the mid-galley was leaking water and she couldn’t shut it off. I went back, thinking my magical pilot powers might be able to stop the leak. They, of course, were useless against the mighty coffee maker. Despite shutting off the valve, water continued to spill out onto the counter. Chuckling at our misfortune, I walked back to the cockpit to call maintenance. Of course, in order for the mechanic to come onboard, we need the jetway reattached to the airplane, and the only people who could drive the jetway at the moment are the managers from the ground company, and since they were done with our airplane, they had moved on to the next airplane and are nowhere to be found. Another call to operations.

We were quickly approaching the time the ground controller wanted us to call for a push clearance and now, not making our slot time is becoming an issue. About 6:15, I was tickled to see one of the managers from the ground company walking up the jetway’s external stairs to reattach the jetway so maintenance could come on board. The mechanic quickly fixed the coffee maker, bid us adieu, and headed downstairs to push us back.

It finally looked like we were going to say au revoir to the lovely people of Paris and get out to the runway before our slot time expired. With the jetway pulled away, I saw the mechanic walking toward the nose of the airplane and a few seconds later, his voice was heard over the speakers in the cockpit. “You guys aren’t going to believe this,” he said, “While I was on the airplane fixing the coffee maker, the tug disappeared.” Of course it did. I had seen the tug sitting in front of the airplane at one point, but when the coffee maker fiasco started, it was as if it vanished into thin air. I don’t know where it went, but we suddenly found ourselves without a push-back tug. Knowing that it can sometimes take upward of an hour to get a new slot time, we would have to be underway soon or face further delays. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do at this point besides sit and wait.

At 6:30 PM, clearance delivery called us to ask if we were ready to go. I told him about the lack of a tug and that we would call him back when we found one. We sat in wait, laughing at the debacle that is our flight. Finally, about fifteen minutes later, across the ramp, I noticed a tug barreling towards the airplane. Could this be our ticket out of town? Perhaps, but we only had two minutes until our wheels-up time. We would clearly not make the slot time. The best we could do now is call and ask what they had in store for us. After the tug we saw pulled up to the airplane, the mechanic got in and told us he was ready for push-back. At this point, our slot time had expired, but when I called for a push-back clearance, the tower told us all slot times had been cancelled and we could take-off as soon as we were ready. It looked like things were finally turning around for us.

With the push-back complete and both engines running, we called for our taxi-clearance and waved good-bye to the mechanic, who had been so faithful in assisting our departure. Before we even got off the ramp and onto a taxiway, the ground controller’s voice crackled in our headsets. I could tell from the tone of his voice it wasn’t going to be good, “I can’t find your flight plan,” he said, “Expect a delay while we work out the problem. It could take about one hour.” It just keeps getting better and better.

At this point, I’d lost all faith in us even taking off for Washington. In my mind, I was thinking about going to dinner at the crêpe place I had gone to with some flight attendants the night before. With both engines running, we were quickly burning through the fuel we needed to keep us above the minimum required for take-off. We started sending ACARS messages (our way of text messaging) back and forth with our dispatcher. If we had to wait an hour to take-off, there was simply no way we’d make it to Dulles with the fuel we had. Typically, we would just go back to the gate for more fuel, but during the push-back, the mechanic told us the ground crew had extended their strike until 8:00 PM. If we went back to the gate for more fuel, who knows how much longer we’d be in Paris. Thinking the best option would be to land in Gander to refuel, we were trying to get dispatch to re-release us to Gander, but legally we couldn’t take-off below the minimum fuel of 75,700 pounds listed on our release. As my fingers began smoking from all the typing I was doing, the air traffic controller called us and unexpectedly cleared us for take-off. I looked up at the fuel gauge, we had 76,000 pounds of fuel on board; 300 pounds more than the minimum required. Just like a fast moving line of weather on a hot summer day, our problems had come and gone. No fuel stop would be necessary and soon the only problem we’d deal with is what kind of salad dressing to have with our crew meal.

With just minutes to spare, we lined up on the runway, engaged the auto-throttles and soon we were passing over French vineyards, across the English Channel, over the North Atlantic, down the Saint Lawrence River, past New York City, and into our nation’s capitol. Having finally reached our destination, I was glad the journey had come to an end.